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China adds Lou to economic team

Grand planners put sovereign wealth chief in charge of finance portfolio and keep veteran Zhou in place at helm of central bank

Bloomberg

China filled out Premier Li Keqiang’s economic team over the weekend, installing sovereign-wealth fund chief Lou Jiwei as finance minister while retaining Zhou Xiaochuan as central bank governor.

Gao Hucheng, 61, will be commerce minister after the National People’s Congress approved his appointment in a vote in Beijing on Saturday. Xu Shaoshi, 61, will head the National Development and Reform Commission, the economic planning agency.

The leadership lineup under Li, who was to hold a press briefing Sunday in Beijing, is a mix of “activist reformers” such as Zhou and Lou and more cautious officials like Zhang Gaoli, appointed as the most senior vice premier, according to Yukon Huang, a former World Bank country head for China. At stake is the speed of policy moves to deepen a shift toward free markets and limit a slide in growth, as Nomura Holdings Inc. warns of mounting risks of a financial crisis.

“The short-term challenge is how to suck the oxygen out of shadow financing and the property market without sucking the oxygen out of the economy,” said Alistair Thornton, a Beijing- based economist at research company IHS Inc. “Long-term, it’s about how to reduce the state’s hold over the economy, which increasingly is jeopardizing the sustainability of growth.”

Li said Sunday that the government needs growth of 7.5 percent per year to meet its goals, which include doubling per- capita income by 2020. Nomura sees a slowdown to 7.3 percent in the second half of 2013 as officials tighten policies to head off any crisis, according to a report issued by the bank on Friday.

Vice premiers added

Politburo members Wang Yang, who’s the former Communist Party secretary of Guangdong, Liu Yandong, one of only two women in the upper echelon, and former state planner Ma Kai were also named as vice premiers.

One of the officials at that level, ranked higher than ministry heads, is likely to serve as counterpart to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, due to visit Beijing on Tuesday.

The world’s second-biggest economy faces rising risks because of excessive credit, elevated property prices, declines in the labor force and limited productivity gains, according to Nomura.

A slowdown in “reform momentum” after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 is holding the nation back, the investment bank said.

Monetary policy likely same

The government has avoided difficult changes “such as moving to a fully market-based monetary policy framework and opening up the service sector that is monopolized by the state-owned enterprises,” said Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist at Nomura in Hong Kong.

The Shanghai Composite Index is down more than 6 percent from this year’s Feb. 6 peak on concerns that monetary tightening and property curbs will slow expansion. The economy grew 7.8 percent last year, the least since 1999.

Zhou’s role may signal that the new Communist Party leadership will press on with loosening controls on interest rates and expanding international use of the yuan. Li became premier on Friday, while Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as president the day before.

Lou, 62, may be the new appointee with the highest international profile, after overseeing purchases including a stake in Morgan Stanley as founding chairman of sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp. In January this year, he said the fund was trying to cut an “over-reliance on U.S. debt.” He also predicted that loose monetary policies would persist, saying that the so-called QE3 round of easing in the U.S. would be followed by “QE infinite.”

Lou takes ‘practical’ approach

“Lou will enhance China’s influence in multilateral institutions,” said David Loevinger, former senior coordinator for China affairs at the U.S. Treasury Department, who’s now an analyst in Los Angeles at TCW Group Inc., which oversees about $138 billion. “He is well-known and well regarded by the international financial community. He brings a practical, rather than an ideological, approach to financial diplomacy.”

At home, Lou will face challenges including local governments’ debt burdens.

Xu, the head of the NDRC, was previously the minister of land and resources, charged with defending a so-called “red line” of 1.8 billion mu, or 120 million hectares, of arable land. The NDRC is a planning body with origins in China’s command economy, before Deng Xiaoping drove the nation’s opening up from the late 1970s. It gained extra responsibilities in changes approved Thursday, adding power-market regulation to its National Energy Administration and taking over population strategy.

Trade chief has African ties

Gao, the commerce chief, was previously a vice minister and China’s international trade representative, serving at the ministry under Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Chongqing party secretary, and then Chen Deming. Gao has ties with Africa, after studying in the 1970s in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

One of the most important decisions for U.S.-Chinese ties may be the choice of the vice premier to serve as counterpart to U.S. Treasury secretary, a role previously held by Wang Qishan. That relationship was “critical in steering the bilateral relationship through the financial crisis,” when Henry Paulson and then Timothy F. Geithner represented the U.S., said Loevinger.

“If the vice premiers for finance and international trade and investment are split as they were during the first term of the Hu Jintao administration — which appears likely — it will represent a challenge for Secretary Lew as he heads to Beijing,” Loevinger said.

“He is likely to only get one counterpart to build that critical relationship.”